*"Ne Me Quette Pas," by Wyclef Jean

Last week I was invited to visit the Men of Hope Association in Kampala, Uganda. All the men are refugees who have endured conflict-related sexual violence. This remarkable group, which was formed in 2011, meets once a month at the Refugee Law Project's office to collectively welcome their new members.

As I entered the room I was initially taken aback. It was a full house, even with only half the group in attendance. Rows of low wooden benches and an assortment of plastic chairs, were filled with men. Every wall space was lined with men, standing next to and in front of each other. The metal window frames were wedged open and the stand-fans were turned to full-blast, yet despite this the tropical heat was barely dissipated. Two gracious elders shifted to offer me a seat on their bench, as the delightful President of the Men of Hope Association offered everyone a warm welcome and invited each person to briefly introduce himself.

As each man spoke his name and mentioned how long he had been a member of the Men of Hope Association (ranging from eight years to one day), I noticed that there were tall men and short men, old men and young men, men representing a variety of ethnic signatures with voices echoing variations of English, French and Swahili accents. It was apparent that many of the men were undernourished. Shifting my position on the hard seating arrangement and wiping the sweat from my face, I reflected on how uncomfortable it must be for all the men who were waiting for and recovering from painful surgeries and medical interventions. As the final man lining the wall shared with us his name, I swallowed hard to force back my tears. Why was it so difficult for the world to respond with practical assistance for these men? Why was it so difficult for these men to secure medical assistance, psychosocial support services, and the appropriate nutrition demanded by their rigorous medical regimes? How were these men surviving as male survivors?

The seventy-odd individual introductions were followed by a multilingual and very animated group vote, to decide which two languages should be used for this meeting. Once English and French were settled upon, five of the charismatic leaders took it in turns to speak with the assistance of different male survivor translators. This process – a few sentences in English, translated into French, and vice-versa, continued for an hour and relatively smoothly, albeit with frequent interjections by audience members offering, and briefly debating, alternative translations that captured the nuance of words and phrases. The choice of words used to speak about conflict-related sexual violence against men and the consequences of such violence for men, matters greatly. 

“You are not alone” was reiterated by all who made the series of thoughtful presentations for new members, and visitors, on that May afternoon:

  1. Men of Hope was founded in 2011 by two male survivors at the Refugee Law Project. They quickly became a group of six men, and in 2017 Men of Hope now has 150 members. There are two other affiliated groups in Uganda - Men of Peace and Men of Courage. Together these three male survivor support groups are represented by hundreds of men offering support to each other and learning how to advocate more effectively for the creation of services to raise the quality of their lives and those of all their peers who have still not reached a safer place to live. “You are not alone.”
  2. We call ourselves Men of Hope, because together we are building a future that is hopeful. A future in which we ourselves and our families, as well as the communities surrounding our lives, now better understand that men are targeted for rape and all forms of sexual violence in conflict, and that when male survivors have access to medical care and psychosocial support the quality of life for each man and his family is significantly raised.
  3. Our advocacy work reduces the debilitating social and cultural stigma being endured by male survivors. A person’s gender cannot be changed by perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence, nor by the taunting and name-calling. As everyone knows clearly, no woman on earth was once a male victim of rape. The idea is preposterous; in some quarters, would even be considered blasphemous. As communities begin to call-out this idea for what it is – psychological warfare employed to insult male survivors and women, so much unnecessary suffering will be alleviated.
  4. Anti-homosexual laws and beliefs hurt male survivors and their families hard. When laws do not make a distinction between consensual homosexual relationships and acts of extreme sexual violence perpetrated by armed aggressors and terrorists and rapists, it takes immense bravery for any man to disclose that he has been raped by male perpetrators. Women need to know that when their male relatives disclose they have been raped, the crime will be taken seriously and their male relatives will have access to medical care and support services. 
  5. Psychosocial intervention reduces self-harm, suicide ideation, debilitating loneliness and domestic violence. Counselling subtantially  reduces frustration and anger, so is not directed at ourselves or our wives. Our wives also need support. Medical care and psychosocial intervention assists a male survivor to resume or commence a sexual relationship with his wife, and to father children. 
  6. There are many forms of conflict-related sexual violence against men. The crimes can be perpetrated by men or women, adults or children, and can be perpetrated by groups and in full and deliberate view of bystanders.
  7. Conflict-related sexual violence against men, is considered a serious crime by the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. The recent exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, was called 'Rape in Conflict.' The exhibition included information about male rape in war and conflict. This was seen by visitors and people working at the U.N.  At the closing ceremony, the Deputy Secretary-General and the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict both spoke about male rape and sexual violence in conflict and war. Your stories have reached the United Nations.

As the Men of Hope presentations came to an end, it was impossible for anyone in the room to misunderstanding the gravity of the crimes that these men had endured, nor the weight of the consequences that they were shouldering. It was also impossible for anyone present that afternoon to avoid noticing that this group of men had created a response, an expanding network of support and services, that was benefitting hundreds of male survivors and their families. But, perhaps, the most significant thing these men had developed was an oasis of strength, a movement which men wanted to belong to and took pride in being a member of.

“How can people best assist you,” I asked my hosts.

“When you return home, please share our stories. Let other male survivors around the world know that they are not alone, that there is hope. If we work together we can change harmful attitudes and laws.”

“If we could have access to a fund that provides micro-loans for male survivors, we will start small businesses. We need to earn a livelihood so that we can support our families, send our children to school, pay for our medical care and medications, and help our new members when they go through surgeries and begin counselling.”

Offering my farewells, I looked around the small room with whirling stand-fans, wooden benches and teeming with people who had told me their names. What I saw were many men with a wealth of skills and expertise. Their fellowship and knowledge, their vision and loyalty, their burning desire to live, had changed me.

Rachel Bardhan, PhD (Founder, Real Stories Gallery Foundation)May 2017.


Real Stories Gallery Foundation (RSGF) has been following the work of the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in Uganda for a number of years. In 2017, after extensive discussions about their work with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, we were able to visit and see for ourselves some of their ground-breaking work with this specific population of survivors. Refugee Law Project is the one organization in the world that has made programming for such populations of male survivors and their families, a central concern. Their work ranges from working directly with survivors and their families on the ground, focus on trainings for institutions and first responders, key policy changes, building partnerships across the global and maintaining a sustainable organisation that has also weathered challenges on the ground. In doing so, we believe, it has also made a major contribution towards shifting the global discourse about sexual violence towards more inclusive approaches and awareness, particularly in humanitarian and transitional justice, that stand to benefit millions of survivors.

Refugee Law Project is a community outreach project of the School of Law, Makerere University. Established in 1999, initially with a narrow focus on legal aid for refugees, it has since expanded to become the leading centre for justice and forced migrations in the east African region. With Headquarters in Kampala, it has since 2010 built a strong presence in the (Lord’s Resistance Army) LRA-affected areas of northern Uganda (Kitgum and Gulu), as well as refugee hosting areas in southern and central Uganda (Isingiro and Hoima districts). Following a ground-breaking screening project for experiences of violence that was supported by the Global Disaster Preparedness Centre (GDPC), and with substantial financial support from the Dutch government, Refugee Law Project is currently expanding its presence in three key areas hosting the influx of South Sudanese refugees; Lamwo, Adjumani and Kiryandongo.

One outstanding aspect of the Refugee Law Project is their work with survivors of sexual violence, in particular the way RLP has been able to access male survivors and integrate them alongside their existing work with women survivors. We believe that, since making men an explicit focus of their Gender-Based Violence (GBV) programming in 2009, RLP has done more than any other organization internationally to provide direct assistance to male survivors and their families, as well as to advocate for a change in global perspectives and practices in this regard. The practical impact is visible from individual victims who have recovered full physical, social, sexual and economic functioning. It is also clear when families escape the dysfunction caused by men being unable to disclose their victimization. In many instances both partners in refugee couples have been victims, and Refugee Law Project has been able to mediate disclosure between husbands and wives, leading to joint treatment and far greater prospects of full recovery. This compares with the majority of services that target only women survivors.

The suffering of survivors is not purely physical, it contains also a large measure of psychological and social suffering, largely provoked by widespread stigmatization and marginalization of victims & survivors. Refugee Law Project has skillfully targeted a range of common vulnerabilities within refugee populations (People Living with HIV, Parents bringing up Children Born of Rape, People Living with Disabilities, Sexual and Gender Minorities, Survivors of Torture, and Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence), catalyzed a range of related refugee support groups, and worked with these groups to confront their shared stigmatization head on. For example, in the case of Men of Hope Refugee Association (MOHA) in Uganda, the world’s first ever group of male refugee survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (established in 2011), group members have worked hand-in-hand with RLP staff to provide awareness-raising workshops on the issue for diverse stakeholders ranging from Local Council officials in refugee hosting areas, through Uganda Police Force trainings, and up to training for members of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF). This shift from victims who are dependent on outside assistance, to activists able to make their needs heard at the highest levels (e.g. Wilton Park, U.K., December 2016), is dramatic, empowering, and fundamentally good for the recovery of mental health.

Refugee Law Project has probably done more than any other single organization to raise awareness of male victims of conflict-related sexual violence through the use of national and international media. This began in 2011 with a ground-breaking and award-winning article The Rape of Men: the darkest secret of war in the UK Guardian, followed by in depth media coverage of RLP’s work by the BBC World Service (2012) and BBC Africa (2017), The Times (2014), Reuters (2014), Al Jazeera (2015), Devex (2017) and Television Interviews and Newspaper articles across continents: Finland (2016), The Netherlands (2013), Colombia (2014), Cambodia (2015).

Refugee Law Project staff have also worked tirelessly to ensure that the issue of conflict- related sexual violence against men is integrated into a wide range of training activities, particularly of humanitarian, human rights and criminal justice actors. In 2012, RLP wrote the UNHCR’s first guidance note on working with male survivors. In 2014, they collaborated with the International Institute for Criminal Investigations (IICI) in the conceptualisation of and scene-setting input into Expert workshop on the development of Guidelines for the Investigation of Crimes of Sexual Violence against Men and Boys (19- 20 June 2014) a document that informed the development of the 2nd edition of the International Protocol on Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, a review process that RLP was again involved in closely. In 2015, RLP developed the first ever training on the issue for UNHCR staff in the Middle East and North Africa. RLP has provided input into trainings for Justice Rapid Response (JRR) on how best to investigate sexual violence for purposes of criminal prosecution and war crimes. From 2014 onwards, RLP has also collaborated with CERAH (University of Geneva) to incorporate these topics into their trainings for humanitarian workers. RLP has provided key instructional materials to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for its in-house training of staff in eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). Our video “Gender Against Men” (2009) is used by the European Union in its training of refugee workers.

As well as ensuring that trainings become more inclusive and comprehensive, RLP has also worked in key policy areas to promote the mainstreaming and thus the long-term sustainable impact of inclusive understandings of gender and gender based violence. These range from incorporating such understandings of gender into the National Police Training Curriculum in Uganda (2014), to influencing the revision of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Guidelines (2015) which form the basis for much training of humanitarian workers. In June 2013, Refugee Law Project was centrally involved in the first workshop of the Special Representative of the Secretary- General on Sexual Violence in Conflict (SRSG-SVC) on sexual violence against men. In 2016, RLP’s Director, Dr. Chris Dolan, and the leader of Men of Hope Refugee Association in Uganda, Aim Moninga, were involved in a Wilton Park conference at which the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative’s Guidelines on stigma were drawn up.

RLP’s work has at times been controversial. In 2014, the Government of Uganda suspended the organization for ten months, in part because they saw their work with male survivors as a way of promoting homosexuality. This in itself helped to highlight one of the central issues affecting male survivors, namely the error of automatically conflating their experiences with homosexuality. RLP was the only organization in the 2014 Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict to present multiple sessions addressing different dimensions of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Against Men (CRSVAM). RLP’s Director has also generated an international debate, through the International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), about the tensions between GBV programming that prioritizes women and girls, and that which takes an inclusive approach that both addresses the needs of women, men, girls and boys, and sees the interconnections between those needs. Against this backdrop, invitations to RLP’s director to address the Bled Strategic Forum (2015), British House of Lords (2015), NATO Headquarters Brussels (2016), ICRC Geneva Humanitarian Forum (2017) on the topic of sexual violence against men, represent important recognition of the issue at the highest levels.

These achievements have been enabled by Refugee Law Project’s strategic partnerships; these have included with Johns Hopkins School of Public Health with whom RLP developed a screening tool for the earlier identification of male survivors of sexual violence in humanitarian settings (2012). RLP partnered with Institute of Development Studies (University of Sussex, UK) with whom RLP and Men of Hope were able to both study the importance of creating spaces for men to do their own Therapeutic Activism, Journeys to Activism (survivor video testimonies), with a major example being the film Men Can Be Raped Too, a docu-drama developed, acted and filmed by Men of Hope members with technical support from RLP’s video unit (2015). RLP has also partnered with the International Human Rights Law Clinic of the University of California Berkeley to write a working paper on the domestic and international legal frameworks that impact on male survivors. This also fed into the first South-South Institute on Sexual Violence against Men and Boys, an RLP initiative in collaboration with Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust – New Zealand, and First-Step Cambodia. The first Institute was held in Kampala in 2013, the second in Phnom Penh in Cambodia in May 2015. The upcoming third Institute will be held in New Zealand in November 2017. Since 2015 Refugee Law Project has also been a partner in the Conjugal Slavery in War consortium led by York University, Canada, and in May 2017 hosted a Summer Institute on Men’s and Women’s Relations in Coercive Settings, a week-long event which Real Stories Gallery Foundation (RSGF) participated in.

A very important contribution of RLP is the unique and inspirational model it provides for other non-profit and humanitarian initiatives. They have created an environment in which survivors disclose their experiences, creating the possibility of systematic responses to  their needs and even systemic changes. By linking their direct service provision to research and advocacy activities, RLP has also managed to leverage a global change in thinking about the parameters of one of the scourges of our time, conflict-related sexual violence. Key elements in the RLP model that can be replicated by other organisations include the systematic inclusion of refugees on staff (approximately 25%) and in staff recruitment processes, strong anti-discrimination policies that are embedded into staff contracts, creating strong working relationships with key governmental duty bearers such as police, army and prisons, documenting hands-on experience and feeding this documentation into research and advocacy activities, only pursuing funding opportunities that further the organisation’s core vision and mission.

The RLP model has also been achieved on limited resources, in a funding climate where virtually no Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) donors ask for work with male survivors in their calls for proposals (it should be noted that during the period when the US Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) called for proposals that did include calls for work with men and boys, RLP received substantial funding from PRM for three project cycles in a row).

The Refugee Law Project could not have achieved the success it has without a strong organizational capacity. This capacity is evident in a number of indicators. Financially, the organization has grown its annual income and expenditure. Its reputation for financial integrity was recognised by its appointment as lead organization of a tri-partite consortium funded by DFID (2010-2015), as well as, more recently (September 2017 – December 2018), the 16-month grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which includes procurement/sub-granting for the Ugandan Police Force). Other indicators include strong staff retention, as well as high levels of success by staff seeking fully sponsored further studies. In the last five years, an average of 3 staff per year have been on fully-funded scholarships abroad, primarily for Masters level studies. The RLP has also become the starting point for international M.A. and PhD students undertaking research and fieldwork on conflict-related sexual violence against men and their families.

Based on the Refugee Law Project’s direct impact with communities, their focus on trainings and policy-changes, their focus on sustainability and scalability, their focus on engaging well-respected academic and media coverage to increase understanding and shift stigma, and their unique contribution and leadership in this challenging field, we strongly urge everyone to support the work of Refugee Law Project.

If you would like to learn more about the Refugee Law Project's leadership work with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, or download their research and reports, please visit:

Donations to 'Real Stories Gallery Foundation' will go directly to support leadership initiatives

working with male survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. Thank you. 

Real Stories Gallery Foundation is a registered 501c3 charity in the USA.

Donations made by U.S. tax-payers are tax-deductible. EIN number: 80-0575894

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